October 30, 2012

African Art at Yale

Mask, Teke, Tsaayi subgroup, Congo, late 19th century; wood and pigment

I am so often stunned by the power of African art. So many of the artists seem to have an unerring sense of pattern, and a way of stylizing human and animal shapes that transform them into objects of magic and mystery. I was lucky enough to see the fine collection of African art at the newly enlarged Yale University Art Gallery. I had gone there to see the Robert Adams retrospective, which I wrote about here; I also wrote about the "angels and demons" in their European collection. I'm hoping to explore more of the museum in the future.

African vessels, late 19th-early 20th century

Vessel, Zulu, South Africa, late 19th-early 20th century; clay

These African pots have dramatically beautiful patterns and shapes. In the black Zulu vessel, I love how the circles of the lid sit atop stacked triangles. I was especially taken with the pot above having all the small protuberances popping from its surface. I've been trying to think of what natural occurrence could have inspired those bulges, but couldn't come up with anything; I guess it's pure wacky inventiveness.

Headrest, Kenya, early 20th century; wood, beads, and metal

This headrest is like a sassy figure (I'm thinking male), with its arms akimbo, ready to strut about.

Grave figure, Bongo, Sudan, late 19th-early 20th century; wood and pigment

When I look at a piece like this grave figure, it seems obvious how much African art influenced modernist artists; just look at Brancusi's Endless Column.

Mask, Igbo, Afikpo subgroup, Nigeria, early 20th century; wood, fiber, and pigment

Helmet mask, Sierra Leone, early 20th century; wood, raffia, metal, and pigment

Here are two more masks; each of the three I've pictured have very different ways of approaching form, but each one is startling in its directness and imaginative transformation of the ordinary world.


  1. Wonderful post, Altoon, thank you.

  2. The images you chose are so beguiling. Thanks Altoon. A visual and provocative feast, as always.

  3. Great selection.. I also remember liking the carved scepters,(if that's the right term),when I was there a few years ago...have to go back.. the last one looks like the Grouch!